The Citizenship Pendulum: How the idea of citizenship has swung between rights and obligation

A Patent of Roman citizenship granted to Hasekura Tsunenaga, 20 November 1615.

Since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648[1], and especially since the end of the Second World War, the way in which we conceptualise the modern polity has been that of the nation state[2], an idea which I examined in another essay[3]. Embedded within this idea is the way we conceptualise our own citizenship.

The settlement’s which ended the world wars and the subsequent collapse of the European empires saw this model and ideal spread around the world as the European empires retreated and attempted to leave something recognisable to the west in their place, creating the myriad tapestry of nations on our maps today. However, as I argued previously[4], this final triumph of the idea of the nation state also somewhat ironically coincided with its decline.

Changes to our societies since 1945, and particularly in the 30 years since the end of the Cold War, have exposed the ideal of the nation state to challenge. Although, the concept of the nation state remains, in many ways, seen as the pinnacle of communal political expression, historical and geopolitical changes have forced countries to look toward collective measures which ultimately dilute this ideal. This could be through the pooling of resources in military alliances such as NATO, or economic and political blocs like the EU or even multinational co-operation in the form of organisations like the WTO or UN. Further, increased mobility of people and resources have seen our cultures and societies involved in a greater change and churn than has probably ever existed, leading to questions over what should constitute the citizen body of the nation state.

What has ultimately driven and underpinned all of this change is the rapid advancement of technology and as we sit on the precipice of a further industrial revolution, the rapidity of this advancement and the changes it will bring only look set to increase[5]. Jamie Susskind in his book Future Politics, terms this reshaping of society the Digital Lifeworld[6] as reality will begin to blend with the digital world and fundamentally change what society is.

The Brexit vote in the UK, the election of Donald Trump in the US and the wave of populism and nationalism that has swept over the western world, is in part a reaction to this. The rise of the green parties in Europe can also been seen through this lens. As the changes allowed through technological change have created and encouraged a challenge to the concept of the nation state, and with it the established idea of what citizenship is.

Therefore, we find ourselves now on the verge of a huge change in our political lives and are witnessing resistance and backlash against it. The urge has thus far been to reach for the comfort blanket of the ideals of the nation state, whether that is couched in the terms of nationalism, populism, conservativism, socialism or more recently environmentalism. But the reality is that new and coming technology will change what it means to be a member of society, what society means, how a state operates and how we operate as individuals. In short, the established ideas of what it is to be a citizen of a state will no longer hold.

We are already beginning to see the first vestiges of this take hold and what is developing is a sliding scale of propositions, but still couched within the established terms of political discourse.

At one end of the scale, we have a proposition which wants to move beyond the nation state, ultimately aspiring to an ideal of global citizenship linked through a series of private social networks allowing people to bypass the functions traditionally held by the state. This strain of thinking has emanated mainly from the US, and aptly enough Silicon Valley[7] rather than Washington, where privately owned technology and social media platforms which barely recognise the borders of nation states, aim to create a global network. Many are now even funding projects and controlling infrastructure in much the same way as the trading companies of the past would control land and states.

At the other extreme, we have the tools and technology of the twenty first century being put in the hands of the state itself, tightening its ability to control and direct everyday life from, what we see to who we talk with and where we go.

The most recognisable practice of this is in the form of the great firewall of China, in which the state is increasingly at the heart of interactions between people, controlling what information is available and what conversations can be had. The talk of a state social credit system in China[8] would be the logical continuation of this trend.

Europe, rather aptly given its geographic location, finds itself caught between these two poles. With no tech giants of its own to rival the US and China, it has thus far trod a middle path between the two, although leaning heavily toward the US model. Introducing some controls[9], but too few to really limit large companies or place most power in the hands of the state. This is in part due to the supra national nature of the regulation of these bodies in Europe, a challenge not experienced by China or the US.

Of course, these trends prompt a host of political questions about where power within a society should lie. The key to answering this is to provide a modern and relevant answer to what it is to be a citizen in the twenty first century.

In affect what we are witnessing is a debate on a global scale of what it means to be a citizen in the modern world. However, if we consider this in the terms of other debates around international cooperation and our conception of politics and polities, the wider implications of getting this debate wrong are enormous. But with this challenge also comes opportunity, as the world forges ahead into the 4th industrial revolution[10] we have the chance to use new technology and ideas to reform and reconsider what citizenship is, what it means and how it works.

Citizenship as a concept is difficult to define[11] and the term is often intimately bound up with and understood in terms of the dominant political zeitgeist, although broadly speaking we can say that it is the membership of a political group or society. It is therefore worth pausing to consider the history of the concept and what lessons we can draw from its different iterations.

Looking through the broad sweep of the history of western civilisation, as the global conception of citizenship largely draws its foundations from the ideas that developed in the west[12], citizenship can roughly be divided into three different manifestations. That of the ancient world, the medieval world, and the modern world.

Although ideas of separate and distinct political groupings date back as far as recorded human history goes, the first time we encounter a conception of political belonging that we would recognise as a form of citizenship is within the Greek city-states, or poleis, which began to spring up around the Mediterranean and Black seas in the 8th century BC[13]. In fact, the reason why we recognise this as such is due to our own conceptions of citizenship being ultimately traceable back to the ancient Greek poleis, if the detail of how this descent occurred is disputed[14].

Greek colonisation in the Archaic period

The Greeks conceived of citizenship as a bond between the individual and the city-state. Although seemingly unremarkable now, in the 8th century BC the idea that a person could have bonds beyond their own kinship group or tribe was revolutionary. An individual Greek could have a close bond to the political group to which they were a member as well as the wider cultural and linguistic group of the Greek people, Hellenes as they would have called themselves.

It has been suggested that this idea grew out of a fear of slavery and an appreciation of the importance of freedom. As such, from its conception, the idea of citizenship was bound closely with freedom and through that the rule of law, what the Greeks called Nomos[15]. The underpinning of citizenship through the rule of law was important as it meant that no citizen was master, and every citizen was subject to the same rules. In this way, it was conceived that every member of the citizen body could be free.

That is not to say that the Greeks saw any problem with keeping slaves, indeed an important aspect of Greek citizenship was exclusivity[16]. The body of citizens which held the power of the community were served by lower status people who did not hold the same rights, chiefly women, slaves, and foreigners. However, citizenship was also usually conditional on qualifications such as birth and parentage and a certain level of wealth or tax paid to the state. This hierarchy allowed the citizen body the free time to exercise their rights as citizens and participate in exercising political power.

This last point is another important aspect to the ancient Greek conception of citizenship, it was active and participatory. Aristotle considered that a polis’ population should have a maximum size beyond which expansion would be to the detriment of the governance of that city, this was because the obligations of citizenship were intricately connected with everyday polis life. Too large a state and a citizen would be unable to participate in its function fully and actively and as such would not fulfill their obligations but would also be being denied the freedom which citizenship bestowed[17].

A Greek Hoplite warrior

This sense of participation is perhaps best exemplified by the military obligations placed upon a citizen. Ancient Greek warfare, centred around the phalanx formation, demanded cohesion and commitment on the field. This came not just from an individual but from the whole community, the members of which you would be fighting with shoulder to shoulder. Furthermore, citizenship allowed each man a say in when, where and with who the polis went to war. Allowing a role in taking this decision, it was reasoned, would make the citizen committed and bound to the will of the group, resulting in loyalty and cohesion on the battlefield. Moreover, the exclusive and hierarchical elements of citizenship were important in allowing the citizen the time and wealth to afford the military equipment needed to participate in this vital function.[18]

However, with more than a thousand poleis in existence[19], this broad concept of citizenship manifested itself in different forms all over the Greek world. Thus, a sliding scale of citizenship, much like we are seeing today, emerged in Greek thought and practice as the detail over the various aspects of citizenship were debated and effected. In time, the two most dominant states of the Greek world, Athens and Sparta[20], came to embody each of the extremes and so it is worth taking some time to consider their interpretations of the Greek concept of citizenship.

Sparta has been suggested as the place in which citizenship first developed[21]. After a period of lawlessness and civil strife between the 8th and 7th centuries BC, the semi mythical figure Lycurgus is said to have implemented a series of political and social reforms which gave the Spartan state of Classical Greece its unique character[22].

Despite its reputation and the mass enslavement of the Messenians, the Spartan idea of citizenship was based on equality. However, this was the equality of a small military elite, and even they had equality enforced upon them in an ironically draconian manner.

These men where the Homoioi, the full Spartan citizens[23]. They would go through the rigours of the Agoge, the brutal Spartan military education, only receiving full citizenship on the completion of this training. Citizens lived and ate together in a communal mess to which they were required to pay for its maintenance to retain their citizenship. Homoioi were gifted helot slaves by the state and at the age of thirty were given a plot of state held land large enough to feed a family[24]. Indeed, the control of the state over the economy was sometimes pursued so absolutely that money was banned in Sparta.

As young men, the main activity of the Spartan citizen was the training for and participation in war, it was through this action that the Homoioi most clearly exercised his citizenship and participated in the governing and functioning of the polis. As citizens got older, their obligations would move from the field of battle to the governing of the state, participation in both was mandatory and failure to do so would see the removal of citizenship. Women’s role within the Spartan state was also seen as vital, with the birthing bed seen as their own particular battlefield[25], but this subject lies beyond the scope of this essay.

In many ways the Spartan model of citizenship was a fraternity of equals, supported in their activity by various lower status groups. Political power was shared, and the principal of participation was present but limited to a small percentage of the community. Further this participation was harshly enforced, and the balance of power fell heavily on the side of obligation as compared to rights.

Sparta sits at the one extreme end of the spectrum in that the role of a centralised and controlling state is ever present and dominating in all aspects of citizens lives. Even the full Spartan citizens were severely limited in their freedom of action by an overbearing polis which attempted to control all aspects of life from cradle to grave. This interpretation of citizenship is based on central control, in the form of the state, over the tools and resources needed to be a participatory citizen. In effect the state loans a citizen the assets needed to fulfill their obligations and holds the threat of withdrawal of these assets if the citizen does not comply.

Athens in many ways was the antithesis of Sparta and the couching of the titanic struggle of the Peloponnesian War in these terms by contemporary historians was no mistake[26].

Unlike with Sparta, the Athenian concept of citizenship went through numerous iterations through the centuries as the society changed, gradually becoming more inclusive[27]. The reforms of Draco[28] and Solon[29] gradually brought more and more rights and people within the embrace of Athenian citizenship, before Cleisthenes[30] restructured the state, forging the direct democracy of Athens golden age.


Probably the most important change that Cleisthenes made was the radical reordering of the tribal structure which Athens was previously organised under[31]. He did this to such an extent that the kinship groups which tied people together more or less disappeared as the basis for citizens identity[32]. With this change, Athenian citizenship went beyond these traditional ties and moved toward a democratic state where all citizens were individuals and equal.

Again, a seemingly normal proposition for us from a modern perspective, this change meant that citizens were now, at least in theory, all equal in their citizenship. All had the same rights and obligations no matter their position.

Although quite different in many respects from Sparta, Athenian citizenship was still drawn from the same core ideas of what citizenship was. As such, it was still extremely participatory and based on a series of obligations rather than rights.

However, these concepts manifested themselves in Athens in a vastly different way. Although military service was compulsory, a year of service to the state was expected before one could take up their place as a full citizen, it was not in any way so controlling and domineering as the Spartan model. Once their term of service was complete, there was no obligation on a citizen to live in a communal barracks for example.

Athenians saw themselves as both the ruled and the rulers and every citizen equal under the law, a concept known as Isonomia[33]. Citizens had a duty to serve in the governing structures of the city, this was often done by lot or rotation to ensure that participation was wide and to prevent corruption. But they also had the right to attend and speak at the assembly. In Athens, the people were sovereign and indivisible from the state itself[34]. All citizens made decisions which bound all of them, these were the laws which governed the state.

Therefore, the concept of citizenship in Athens manifested itself as a balance of participation, obligations, and rights, bound up in a feeling of common interest and obligation. There was no overarching authority as in Sparta which held centrally the levers of control and rewarded or removed citizenship as it desired. Instead a small amount of power was held by each citizen who came together for the state to make decisions on a collective basis.

Although in practice neither ordinary citizens of Sparta or Athens individually held any real power, the fundamental divide came in that Spartan citizens were obliged to enact the will of the Spartan state, usually on the battlefield, and thus fulfilled the participatory aspect of their citizenship. Whereas the Athenian citizens participatory obligations were fulfilled by being actively involved in the decision making and governing of the state itself.

Succinctly, Greek concepts of citizenship manifested themselves in Sparta as citizens pooling power centrally and then distributing it out as and when needed, or taking it back to the central point, with citizens participating by being the tools of this power. In Athens, citizens were recognised as each holding power individually and thus there was no centre of power, but it was diffused amongst the citizen body. Politics and governance were then conducted by each citizen coming together to use their collective power to decide, the participatory element of citizenship. Each state radically different, but only in so much as they sat on the two extremes of the same spectrum.

This contrast can be seen in many ways through the writings of Plato and Aristotle. In Plato’s Republic, the philosopher envisions an all controlling state in which each citizen is allocated a series of obligations based on their allotted role within the society[35]. Indeed, Plato’s warrior class is remarkably similar to what Sparta practiced. The implications of Plato’s idea of citizenship are perhaps the epitome of one extreme on the ancient Greek spectrum. Authority and power were completely centralised, and citizens were divided into a hierarchical class structure which came with a series of specific obligations with penalties imposed for failing to fulfill them. At the heart of this idea is the centralising of power and the all controlling nature of an abstract state. The irony of this position being developed in Athens is not lost on many.

Aristotle on the other hand, saw such ideas as artificial and polarising. Instead positing that citizenship was natural for humanity as we are political animals[36]. However, Aristotle’s conception of citizenship did not reject the core principles present in Greek, and thus Plato’s, ideas. He recognised the differences in citizens and their value to the state and society, age playing an important part for example. He also embraced the idea of exclusivity, seeing a society of citizens ruling over non-citizens as a natural formation. Moreover, Aristotle argued that a “rigorous separation of public from private, of polis from oikos, of persons and actions from things[37] allowed citizens to be politically equal and to be a complete human being one needed to engage actively in their society.


Returning to his famous phrase, “To take no part in the running of the community’s affairs is to be either a beast or a god!”[38]. The implication is that a human who is isolated is not truly free, to experience freedom, one must be a member of a community. However, this involves giving up some autonomy and so an individual must engage in the fullest way possible with their community to not lose their freedom. This is why Aristotle felt that a small polis was best as it allowed citizens the widest possible opportunity for participation.

Although Aristotle is critical of Athens in his Constitution of the Athenians[39], and with democracy more generally, his views on citizenship seem to chime much more closely with the diffused power structure of Athens than the centralised control of Sparta.

After the shining light of Classical Greece had almost died out, the Roman juggernaut came over the horizon. Although Roman conceptions of citizenship[40] would draw heavily on their Greek predecessors, it would add new and significant ideas to the ideal of citizenship.

The broad ideas of Greek citizenship carried forward into the Roman world, with participation in the functioning of the state, equality under the law and the spreading of power amongst the citizen body all present[41]. Furthermore, the exclusivity element was central to the Roman concept. However, it is on this point that important differences between the two can be glimpsed. The Roman citizen body was divided sharply between the patrician and plebeian class. Although both groups were citizens, they had many different rights and obligations. The dynamic power struggle between the two forms the backdrop of much of the political history of the Roman Republic[42].

However, the two concepts which represent the biggest differences between the Greeks and Romans and are most important for our purposes are the legal aspect of citizenship and the expansion of the citizen body.

In Rome, citizenship came to have a legal aspect to it which was not present in the Greek city-states. Roman law[43] afforded a Roman citizen certain protection and allowed a citizen the freedom to act in a certain manner[44]. A good example of this would be Cicero’s decision to execute the conspirators of the Cataline Conspiracy without a trail. The subsequent outrage directed at Cicero, although politically motivated, was centred around him not allowing the conspirators the protection afforded them as Roman citizens, in this case the right to a trial[45]. It is with Rome therefore that we first see the pendulum begin to swing toward rights as opposed to obligations of citizenship.

It is perhaps this protection that made Roman citizenship so attractive to non-Romans and it is in this attraction that we see the next new element introduced to the concept by Rome. Although the acquisition of citizenship of a polis not of one’s birth was possible in the Greek world, it was not a privilege shared easily, and initially this was true of Rome as well. However, as Rome expanded from city-state to continent spanning empire, the expansion of the citizen body became not only a prudent political measure but also a tool to legitimise and cement Roman rule. This tactic became easier to employ as the conception of Roman citizenship changed over time. Initially it was possible as Roman ideas of citizenship were unique in structure, granting gradations of citizenship, an example being the granting of lesser status of Latin citizenship to the conquered people of Italy[46]. As time went on these people were granted full Roman Citizenship, although it took a war to secure those rights, and the precedent of expanding the body beyond Rome itself was established.

The changing nature of Roman citizenship, shifting towards one of protection and rights, allowed this expansion to occur as the lessening of participatory elements meant that the cohesion of the citizen body was not compromised by being spread over the Mediterranean. This process culminated in the year 212 AD when the Emperor Caracalla[47] made all free men in the empire Roman Citizens. By this time citizenship was almost purely a set of rights and protections granted by Roman Law.

The Roman Empire in 210 AD

With the fall of the Western Roman Empire[48] ancient ideas of citizenship declined. However, some historians have argued that the collapse of Rome in the West saw a split in the religious and secular sources of authority which would be an important step in the development of modern ideas of citizenship. A change in outlook which did not occur in the East as the centralising of religious and secular authority in the body of the Emperor brought a more absolutist outlook[49].

Therefore, although it may be counter intuitive, a brief consideration of citizenship through the medieval period is important when we examine our own ideas of citizenship. The feudal structures of medieval Europe[50] contain many aspects which we still utilise, and many western state’s conception of themselves can be traced back to this period. The English-speaking world tracing its own ideas of citizenship back to Magna Carter is a prime example[51].

The Magna Carta of 1215, signed under duress by King John of England

Ideas of rights and obligations are very present in the feudal conception of society. Indeed, the balance between the two is perhaps better found than that of the ancient Greeks and it is arguably this idea which gave rise to the modern conception of the individual and citizen. However, feudal societies placed these rights and obligations in a sharply hierarchical structure focused on land and personal relationships.

In this hierarchical pyramid, a two-way relationship developed where vassals would offer loyalty and subsistence and in turn a lord offered protection. It is an attempted balance of rights and obligations, but a sharply hierarchical relationship and in practice generally weighted heavily in favour of the lords. The lords could demand that their vassals fulfill their obligation with, in practice, little rights in return.

Much like the ancient Greek model, the pendulum swung heavily on the side of obligation. However, the personal element of feudalism meant that the feeling of freedom and common cause which the Greeks had fostered, through the abstract creation of the polis, was absent.

The impractically of these complicated, land based, personal relationships quickly began to fall short. Magna Carter, although a very feudal document, was a reaction to King John[52] overreaching in his role at the top of the feudal pyramid. Magna Carter was an attempt to get John to acknowledge and recommit to his role within the feudal conception, an attempt that failed.

However, in Magna Carter we see the ideas of feudal rights being codified and presented in a more abstract manner, especially in its positing of the security and freedom of individuals being inviolable. This is the beginning of a process in which the personal ties underpinning the rights and obligations of the feudal system were eroded and replaced by a more impersonal and contractual conception. A state of affairs more recognisable as a modern form of citizenship.

Medieval cities did, however, have an arguably intense form of citizenship. It is in this that we see an issue which is recognisable in the modern context, the division of rights and obligation between competing sources of authority. The institutions of the city itself and the powerful groups, such as merchant guilds[53] within it, providing one source, and the claims of lords and kings to sovereignty and over lordship providing a second.

Although the cities of the medieval world did provide a competing authority to the Kings of Europe, the biggest challenge came from the church[54].

As a supranational, spiritual, and terrestrial authority, the medieval church offered a separate political community to which all Catholics were a part. As such it offered a competing source of authority for medieval people and presented rulers with a challenge. This struggle for power is the backdrop to much of European medieval history.

The coronation of Charles VII of France 1429

Although neither the church or a medieval monarch offered people citizenship in the sense that we would think of today, each imposed obligations and sort to extend a set of rights over those within their community. These two sources of power therefore inevitably came to blows, with each at one time or another in the ascendancy. The struggles between the Holy Roman Emperors and the Popes best illustrate this and it is perhaps most apt that the factional divisions in the city-states of northern Italy grew to reflect this.

After the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa[55] sought to restore Imperial control over northern Italy and the cities of the Lombard League resisted him, the ideological battle was framed in terms of pro-Imperial, the Ghibellines, and the pro-papacy faction, the Guelphs[56]. Although in practice the political and ideological terrain was much more fractured than these names would suggest, the fact that the struggle was framed in these terms demonstrates how the sense of political community, and thus citizenship, was conceived under these two competing sources of authority.

As I have discussed in a previous essay[57], in a world where the assumptions of the Westphalian system and the idea of the nation state can no longer be relied on, and as supra national organisations grow and extend their writ, this medieval parallel offers and interesting glimpse into what could happen if the question of citizenship is not settled. With multiple sources of obligations and protections of citizens, if each seeks to be absolute then strife and conflict will inevitably follow. However, with a settlement reached between the sources, the citizen could potentially benefit as overlapping authorities can act as a check on the power of the other. A separation of power on the demands placed upon the citizen is a way to prevent an overbearing and potentially tyrannical state from using the tools of the modern age to oppress its citizens.

It is primarily with the Italian city-states that our ideas of citizenship began to manifest themselves. Highly urbanised compared to the rest of Europe[58] and often beyond the effective power of any monarch, the cities of northern and central Italy, by necessity, began to organise their own affairs.

As political control in Italy was increasingly centred on the city, old ideas of citizenship began to remerge. As in Ancient Greece, this seems to have first manifested itself in the need for collective defence. A relatively well off, what we might call middle class, city dweller was now expected to provide their own arms to man the cities defences. With city dwellers fighting alongside nobles, an increasing pressure for equal status developed and a demand to have an input into selecting officials and governing the town emerged.

Italy in 1494

However, these pressures were not exclusive to northern Italy and as the urban populations grew and cities expanded across Europe, the feudal system became increasingly untenable. These conditions are what eventually brought down the feudal system and with it we see the emergence of modern concepts of citizenship.

The path we took to arrive at our modern concept of citizenship from the medieval is long and twisting with multiple streets and avenues and each would need a thesis length essay to adequately explain. For our purposes it is enough to say that as the concept of the nation and the nation state grew, an idea I have discussed in another piece[59], rights and obligations were increasingly becoming tied to the abstract idea of the state, rather than a person such as a lord or king.

This shift in emphasis took with it ideas of belonging and loyalty. No longer were obligations and duty felt towards a person and people tied to land through them. Instead loyalty, duty and obligation were tied to the more abstract concept of nationhood and the state.

This would allow an even more subtle shift to take place. Much like in feudal society before it, citizenship was seen as a result of the land of your birth, a birth right in other words[60]. However, with the more abstract nature of the concept emerging, people were able to begin to choose where to place their loyalty and submit to obligations. This would be virtually unthinkable under a feudal system in which an individual was thrust into a web of personal loyalties and obligations. Further to this, states were able to offer citizenship as a way of attracting skilled workers and so a more abstract concept involving a degree of choice further developed.

Therefore, at the dawn of the Enlightenment[61], a series of ideas were beginning to coalesce centred on a sense of loyalty and belonging to an increasingly abstract concept of the state and the nation, the weakening of personal ties which bound the feudal system and a sense of the state or nation being obliged to provide certain protections and privileges to its members. Further, an element of input and choice from the membership of the political body had remerged. Although still highly exclusive and with one foot firmly in the medieval world, a swirling mix of ideas existed which over the following centuries would coalesce into our modern sense of citizenship.

In the wake of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648[62], it was around the British, American and French Revolutions that these ideas began to crystalize.

The Bill of Rights[63] passed after the Glorious Revolution[64] in Britain attempted to reshape the state away from a feudal monarchy and into being a tool to uphold and enforce the rights of the citizen, codifying freedom of speech, elections and curbing the absolutist tendencies of monarchs.

The American Revolution[65] further codified and put these Enlightenment ideas into practice, crafting a representative democracy to protect citizens. It is perhaps here that we see a key departure from the obligatory and participatory conception of the citizen. In forging the United States Constitution[66], the founding fathers in many ways agreed with Aristotle that a state could be too large to allow a citizen to directly participate, and so they opted to create a representative model.

In doing this they all but guaranteed that in practice modern citizenship would lean heavily toward rights as opposed to obligations. As a citizen cannot directly fulfill a series of political participatory obligations in a large modern state covering a large territory, representatives would have to do the job in their place. However, this means that a representative, and a citizen voter, will be more concerned with having their status and privileges as citizens protected as opposed to furthering their freedom and ability to participate in the political life of the state. This is because, if a citizen voter cannot have a direct input into the political decision making process, as they would in a direct system, and indeed their own professional specialisation would somewhat preclude them from it as their time and resources would be directed elsewhere, they will instead be inclined to put a representative in place to protect what they already have and advance those privileges. In essence, the freedom to participate loses its relevance and immediate appeal. As a result, the concept of citizenship would come to be associated with rights and the protection and extension of those rights.

The storming of the Bastille 14 July 1789

The final stage of this transformation from feudal obligations and privileges was sealed by the French Revolution[67]. This shift is best represented by the Declaration of the Rights of Man[68] which codified the linking of rights with the concept of citizenship. With this development, the idea of citizenship took on its more or less modern form as a web of rights extended over the membership of a national group who in turn showed loyalty to the abstract concept of the state which granted those rights. Almost a full shift of the pendulum away from the ancient and feudal concepts of obligation to that of rights. However, the concept maintained its original elements of exclusivity and equality before the rule of law, with argument shifting to what extent and what shape these elements should take.

It is the framework established by the Enlightenment and largely codified through the British, American and French Revolutions within which modern ideas of citizenship still sit. Although it has taken on many different forms from the 17th century until today, these forms all sit on a sliding scale of the principals laid down by the Enlightenment.

Although there are clear differences between the modern and ancient conceptions of citizenship, both still see participation in the political process as in some way the core of what a citizen does. However, in modern states this is done through the election of a representative to carry out these tasks on the citizens behalf. This has proved a remarkably effective way of maintaining a citizen’s role in the political process whilst also allowing citizens to become specialists in a variety of fields by not having to concentrate their time and resources into the detail of political matters. Furthermore, a representative system in many ways bypasses the problem identified by Aristotle of too large a polity. By allowing others to exercise political power on our behalf we can effectively keep growing the citizen body whilst maintaining nimbleness in the political system and its ability to make decisions. Furthermore, as a professional political class develops, with the correct training, it should be able to make informed and effective decisions on behalf of the whole political community. An especially important skill in an increasingly complicated world.

The shift towards rights over obligations, in many ways grew out of the issues of developing a broader and more inclusive citizen body and a growing polity. A participatory focused conception of citizenship has been difficult to maintain in large polities, whereas a representative system will always tend toward a rights-based conception. Indeed, when the political parameters of the ancient world expanded in the form of the Roman Empire, a shift towards rights was affected to deal with a large citizen body spread over a vast territory in a similar manner to how it has occurred in the modern world.

However, the relentless advance of technology has thrown a spanner into the works of the modern concept. With the ability to receive news, updates, and messages to devices in our hands, and the availability of fast, inexpensive travel to an increasing number of people the modern world moves at a fast pace and can seem disjointed and disconnected to our old citizenship and state models. Technology has effectively made the world a much smaller place than in the past and as such has shrunk the political space we all inhabit. In the face of this new technology, representative, rights-based systems can seem unwieldly and slow to respond and an unnecessary bar to participation and effectiveness within the decision-making process of the political community, fuelling a feeling of detachment and disenchantment amongst citizens.

Although this could represent a grave challenge to the stability of nations, the shrinking of the political world, and the increasing availability of mass communication technology, has presented us with the opportunity to reshape citizenship, swinging the pendulum back to a participatory model. This would seem the logical change which citizenship always takes as technology, polities, and ideology change. An effort to craft that switch would seem a sensible step.

Changes in technology are notoriously hard to predict, and I am not about to attempt to do that here. But considering what is available currently and how it might be leveraged, we can start to sketch out what a more participatory model of modern citizenship might look like and the benefits it may bring to the modern political community.

We find ourselves in a world where there appears to be a large desire by people to participate in the political conversation, especially where and when it feels meaningful, the Brexit vote in the UK perhaps being a prime example of this. This has, and perhaps not coincidentally, coincided with a decline in the trust in elected representatives. These conditions have developed within, and from, the wider context of the decline in the reality of the nation state, if it ever existed at all, and the growth in competing sources of authority. A reworked model of citizenship, based on participation rather than the extension of rights, may be a way to address these conditions and indeed turn the changes effecting our societies into a positive development.

Although technology is in many ways the catalyst and even cause of the tensions building in our definition of citizenship, its rapid development also offers potential solutions.

The starting place for crafting a new type of participatory style of citizenship seems obvious, a way is needed to bring an element of decision making down closer to the people it is most relevant to, passing power down to its lowest practical level, an idea I have examined before. Whilst maintaining a representative element in our system for the important advantages and checks and balances it provides, a more direct element could be added through the blending of the real world with the digital. This could have the effect of making voters feel as if they have power and a stake in the decision-making process.

Once a citizen reaches voting, or more accurately participating, age, a digital citizens profile could be provided to them. Through this they would be able to access information, vote and participate in every day political life through, for example, polls and consultations. A version of this kind of participation is being experimented with in Estonia[69] currently and an expanded version of this type of system should not be too hard to construct elsewhere.

As explored in a previous essay[70], this system could give citizens the ability to participate directly in local political decision-making being provided with information packages and the ability to actively contribute to and vote on issues. Expanding this to the regional, national and supra national level, we could still see a system in which citizens are actively involved in the processes, with the ability to stay informed and participate through consultations and voting on general issues, with representatives then able to concentrate on scrutinising and designing legislation and voting on the details of broader aims set out by the citizen body. Each step up the ladder taken, from local to supra national, would see more of the work taken on by representatives, with citizens participating in setting a general direction and voting on overall outcomes as and when required.

Furthermore, a digital citizen profile could provide more than just access to political discussion. Information could be provided on tax contributions, entitlements, available services, accrued pension and many more as well as information on where this money is spent.

With an ambitious system, a government could even design a broad tax and spending programme in which an individual citizen could choose, within the parameters set, where they would like their contributions to go. This could also work the other way with a sliding scale of benefit payments available to be adjusted as and when required. This would allow an individual much more input into what they pay into the system and what they take out.

Clearly this is the broad outline of a very ambitious policy platform which would need a lot of the detail to be worked out and a large investment in a system able to process on a nationwide scale, not to mention the need to provide security of data and checks to prevent a government abusing the system. But as technology becomes more and more capable, these types of arrangements become increasingly possible and it is the direction in which our thinking will need to evolve to adjust to the changes wrought by technological change.

Such a system, if engaged with correctly, would begin to alleviate some feelings of under representation, decline in trust and the desire to participate. However, it would require intense education at school and high levels of investment to fully understand and appreciate the system and to ensure that citizens are not excluded due to lack of access and knowledge.

The key question would then become, which source of authority provides, maintains, and designs the system. However, this could be addressed in much the same way that supra national organisations already function. A broad minimum standard being agreed to and designed at the supra national level, and then further design and refining at the national, regional, and local levels within the wider confines of the above authority.

Although, once again I would stress that this is a rough sketch of one element we would have to address. It would be a way to begin to redesign and reshape how we think about citizenship and how we engage as citizens, using modern technology to address our current problems, harnessing it for a more positive outlook into the future and a better functioning political society.

In summary, over the next few years we will be faced with a challenge to find a definition of citizenship which fits our societies and prevents large scale fragmentation of our polities. But within this challenge also lies the opportunity to remodel citizenship achieving a new balance between participation and rights which could see a well informed and engaged electorate protected by their membership of well governed political units ushering in a new era of political stability and satisfaction.

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I write about history and its echoes and lessons for the present.

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